A reader has asked me by what lights should I, a white woman, be writing about Afro-Americans, slavery in particular. Once I get all of the flip answers out of my system, what it comes down to is that people do not need to actually experience an injustice to feel its sting. Were there not white Freedom Riders during the 1960s Civil Rights movement? But I want to take the question seriously, so let me back up for a more personal accounting.
I’m a Southerner, born and bred, and I was a teenager and young adult in the 1960s. I remember segregation. Separate rest rooms, water fountains, buses, schools.
My parents were Southerners as were their parents back for many generations, but somehow my mother and father were not infected with racism. They had siblings who were certainly racist and proud to proclaim that fact, but not Mom and Dad. They also did not much mention the Civil Rights Movement nor Martin Luther King, Jr. We didn’t have meaningful discussions at our house; it was mostly, did you get your homework done kind of conversations.
Maybe it’s true that any young person not indoctrinated with hate will have a keen sense of justice. I hope so. At any rate, I remember walking down the sidewalk and realizing that my attempt to demonstrate fair-mindedness by nodding at or making eye-contact with black people was not welcome. And at it last occurred to me that for a black man to make eye-contact with a white girl on the sidewalk was foolish. Why should he risk trouble just to assuage my liberal conscience? And for black women — why would any black person bother with me? That was a humbling moment of attitude adjustment.
I write about slavery as a way to explore injustice, not because I have experienced racial prejudice. As a woman, I have certainly been stung by sexism, but that’s not the point here. I could write about poverty or ageism or sexism or homophobia or any of the many injustices that surround us. Certainly the sex trade of today is a howling injustice, but I know very little about it. I have not been touched by it. Racism, however, has touched me. I’ve seen it first-hand even if I have not been subjected to it myself, and I have been appalled. Most any Southerner my age could give you accounts of specific moments witnessing injustice, but I don’t want to talk about that right now. They are painful moments, and I’m trying to be in think mode, not feeling mode at the moment.
As a writer, I’m keen to explore what makes us human, and being hurt and oppressed, as well as being ugly and cruel, is also human. I want to know how it feels to be cruelly treated and yet endure, and I want to know what it feels like to be a person who could treat someone else cruelly. Writing is perhaps a way for me to exorcise feelings of guilt for being white in a racist society, but I believe it is more about examining humanity. We have done this to our fellows, and I want it understood. The way I find most satisfying and the way I am most able to share my thoughts is through imagination, fiction, and I believe that is how many readers enter the realm of not-me and come away with a deeper understanding of who they – and we — are.
I’ve written five books about African Americans and a few about other things. I may do one more, carrying my saga’s families into Reconstruction, or maybe I’ve said all I want to on the subject. But I do know that empathy is a powerful tool in countering any kind of injustice.